In the previous article we looked at how Jesus invited Matthew to give up everything and follow him. Continue reading . . .
In the previous article we looked at how Jesus invited Matthew to give up everything and follow him.
“13 He went out again beside the sea, and all the crowd was coming to him, and he was teaching them. 14 And as he passed by, he saw Levi the son of Alphaeus sitting at the tax booth, and he said to him, “Follow me.” And he rose and followed him. 15 And as he reclined at table in his house, many tax collectors and sinners were reclining with Jesus and his disciples, for there were many who followed him. 16 And the scribes of the Pharisees, when they saw that he was eating with sinners and tax collectors, said to his disciples, ‘Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?” 17 And when Jesus heard it, he said to them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners’” (Mark 2:13-17).
So what was the first thing Matthew did after saying Yes? How did he respond to the loss of a lucrative career? What did he do following the loss of power and position? He threw a party! He had a banquet in his home. Luke says he held “a great feast” (5:29). Undoubtedly with some of the money he made as a tax collector, he took no shortcuts or held back in the least: this was an incredible celebration.
Matthew says to Jesus: “I’m so glad you’ve agreed to come over tonight. I’ve got the best food and wine in the territory. But whom should I invite? I don’t have many friends. The only people I know are other tax collectors!”
Jesus says to Matthew: “That’s precisely the sort I want to be there.”
Following this exchange, Matthew expands the guest list: it is simply stunning. He didn’t stop with his tax collector buddies! He invited the riffraff, the renegades, and the low-lifes of society. If you were famous for your sin, Matthew opened his home to you. If you were an outcast to your family and the religious leadership, you were welcome in Matthew’s house. If you had a reputation as a scoundrel or a thief or a prostitute, Matthew and Jesus would like you to join them for dinner!
That’s not typically how we do it today, is it?
“Formal attire required. No children please. Valet parking available.”
Our approach is to be very careful about who we let into our house and invite to our parties. We are careful not to invite anyone who might prove offensive or embarrass us or cause others not to invite us to their parties when it’s their turn. We don’t want to jeopardize our standing in the social circles of our community.
Matthew, on the other hand, at Jesus’ request no doubt, invites all his friends from the Roman IRS and anyone else on the margins of society who was willing to come. The only requirement for attending this dinner party was your desire to see Jesus, your hunger for him, your humble acknowledgement that in human terms, judged by human standards, you were utterly disqualified from attending.
What were the disciples thinking? Matthew had probably overtaxed them and aggravated their financial stress! They were probably quite familiar with some of the thieves and prostitutes present that night.
Many of the Pharisees, like many people today, feared that sin was communicable, almost like leprosy. Get too close to sinners and their depravity will rub off on you. The Pharisees feared being contaminated or infected by sinful people. “If I hang out with them, even if only for a meal, I’ll be defiled, not to mention what will happen to my reputation!”
The Pharisees, of course, were nowhere near the party. They wouldn’t have been caught dead in the company of the very people with whom Jesus felt profoundly comfortable. So how did they “see” that he was eating with sinners and tax collectors? Either they watched from a respectable distance as these people, together with Jesus, entered Matthew’s home. Or perhaps some who were present and became offended and uneasy with the people who showed up left and came and told them. In any case, they protested to his disciples who in turn went and told Jesus what the religious leaders thought about his involvement with these people.
Do you only feel comfortable hanging out with people who look like you and dress like you and talk like you and avoid the same things you avoid? Do you find yourself at times wanting to be holier than Jesus? Well, it’s just a question . . .
Here’s another question: Are we to follow the example of Jesus, opening our homes to such people, going into their world and seeking them out and spending time in their presence? Yes! But be careful of your motivation for doing so. Is it because you enjoy watching their sin? Are you there as a voyeur or as a missionary? Are you there because their sin makes you feel comfortable? Are you there because their sin provides you with a cover for your own? Jesus didn’t hang out with people like this while they were sinning. He would never have endorsed their choices.
However, there’s no indication that Jesus put a condition on their attendance at dinner that night. There’s no indication that he said, “Sure, I’d love to have dinner with you and hang out with you, but ladies, you’ve got to stop having sex with men for money before I’ll stay in your presence.” There’s no indication he said, “Sure, I’d love to meet you at Starbucks for coffee, but you’ve got to get off drugs first. After all, I’ve got my reputation to think about. You’ve got to completely abandon your homosexual behavior, and then I’ll come to your house for a meal.”
Sinners do not need to first do something to clean up their act before they can be the objects of Christ’s compassion and love. We do not make ourselves worthy of God’s love or the attention of Jesus.
Sadly, even though many evangelicals would nod their heads in agreement with how Jesus dealt with this situation, they are the first to stand at the door of their church buildings to check the credentials of those who want to come in. They are the first to post a sign at the door: “No low-lifes allowed.” “No misfits here.” First go clean up, change your clothes, cut your hair, and stop your sinning; then we’d love to have you join us for worship. Put on a mask so we don’t see or know who you really are. Cover your wounds with a band-aid so we don’t have to deal with the blood. Check your junk and all your emotional baggage at the door and then join us inside.”
Jesus, on the other hand, utterly rejects making distinctions among people or classifying them or ranking them in order to determine who is the proper recipient of his attention and love.
Don’t conclude from this that Jesus rejects Pharisees and religious types. He would as happily dine with them as with the others if only they felt their need for him as much as these outcasts did.
The problem is that most “religious” people don’t believe their religion is sin. It actually feels like righteousness to them. What do I mean by “religion” and how does it differ from the gospel? Religion is what people do in their efforts to get to God. Worse still, they actually believe that their efforts WILL get them to God. The gospel, on the other hand, is the good news of what God has done to get to people! Thus “religious” people, like the Pharisees of the first century and so many in our own day, created special rules to govern how one gets to God. Their success in keeping those rules and enforcing them on others became the measure of righteousness. To the degree that they conformed to their own standards of holiness, they felt satisfied and safe.
But don’t misinterpret our Lord’s presence at this party. Jesus was not there to take their advice or imitate their ways. He wasn’t there to legitimize their sin. He was not there to encourage them in their chosen lifestyle. Jesus was deeply offended by their behavior. He was saddened by their sin. He was angry with their rebellion. But he loved them! He felt compassion for them. His purpose in dining with them was to make it clear that no one, and I mean no one, is beyond the redemptive reach of God’s love and grace and mercy.
Jesus didn’t associate with these people because he condoned their actions or their lifestyle. Far less was it because he wanted to join with them in their wickedness. He kept company with them for the same reason a physician makes a house call: to bring health and a saving cure to the sickness of their souls. Jesus wasn’t among them because he was like them, but in order to enable them to become like him!
Jesus does not fear being contaminated or infected by them. He is not corrupted by sinners. They, instead, are blessed by him. He didn’t regard his holiness or purity as something that had to be guarded by withdrawing from others. He regarded his holiness as transformative and powerful.
There’s an important principle here: One cannot win people with whom one is not willing to eat.
There is also a special word of hope in this story for those who have thought about following Jesus, have considered his claims and have pondered the gospel, but don’t feel good enough. “I could never be worthy of Jesus. I could never qualify as a follower or disciple.” Well, that’s the first entirely truthful thing you’ve ever said! The simple truth is that “if you feel good enough for Jesus, he does not want you” (D. A. Carson, 79). There is no one who is too sinful to come to Jesus. But a lot of people are much too righteous! You can’t be too evil for him, but you can be too good!
Now, what do I mean by that? The answer is found in v. 17 - “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.”
Is Jesus being sarcastic here? You bet he is! He is not saying that the Pharisees are truly righteous, really righteous and thus without any need of him. He is not dividing the world into two parts, those who are righteous on the one hand and those who are unrighteous on the other, and then declaring that he came only for the latter. He is saying:
“You Pharisees believe yourselves to be righteous and thus have no need of me. You are convinced that all is well with your souls, so what possible good can I be to you. You are confident of your own religious accomplishments. You are proud of your own moral achievements. You enjoy reading your own press clippings. You feel smug and safe and secure in your religious world. You actually think you’re different from and better than these tax collectors and thieves and shysters.”
Or again, using the analogy that Jesus employs, he’s saying to them: “Of what use is a physician to someone who is convinced he is in perfect health? No one goes to a doctor, crying for help, if he thinks his body is in great shape. On the other hand, those who are unrighteous and know it, those who are sick in body and soul and spirit and know it, are the ones to whom I come with healing grace.”
If you visited a doctor’s office and discovered that everyone there was sick, would you say: “Oh, my. What a lousy doctor this guy must be. I can’t believe he’s let so many sick people in here.” My guess is that you would applaud him for his compassion for the needy and his willingness to help them get well.
Consider this handful of testimonies from famous folk who understood full well what Jesus was saying:
Augustine: “Lord, save me from that wicked man, myself!”
John Knox: “In youth, in middle age and now after many battles, I find nothing in me but corruption.”
John Wesley: “I am fallen short of the glory of God, my whole heart is altogether corrupt and abominable, and consequently my whole life being an evil tree cannot bring forth good fruit.”
Augustus Toplady: “Oh, that such wretch as I should ever be tempted to think highly of himself. I am myself nothing but sin and weakness, in whose flesh naturally dwells no good thing.”
The Apostle Paul: “It is a trustworthy statement, deserving full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, among whom I am foremost of all.”
Jesus’ message to the Pharisees is this: “You think these people with whom I associate are sinners! I agree! Of course they are. But at least they know it. At least they have the awareness and conviction of how desperately wicked they are and how desperately they need me. You, on the other hand, are deluded by your religiosity and see no sickness in your souls.”
The call of Jesus is heard by the ears and in the hearts of those who know they are sick and sinful. Those who consider themselves in no need of a savior will hardly pay him much notice when he comes calling. And what does he “call” sinners to do? “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe the gospel!” (Mark 1:15).